Ordnance Survey Maps - Six-inch 1st edition, Scotland, 1843-1882

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The Ordnance Survey's Scottish work in wider context

To appreciate the role of the Ordnance Survey six-inch series and of the Survey in Scotland more generally, it is necessary to understand not only the longer-run historical tradition of mapping in which it is placed, notably the Military Survey of 1747-1755. It is also important to recognise the values Victorian contemporaries placed upon mapping, to consider what the Survey did and how it worked as an intellectual and a political exercise, not just as a practical project.

Economic and political advantages of mapping

Campaigners in the 1830s for the re-establishment of the Survey's work in Scotland argued on several grounds that such mapping was essential. It would benefit landowners and mine owners, initially in the south of Scotland particularly who were disadvantaged in comparison with their competitors in northern England. Canal and railway engineers needed the Survey's maps to get the best lines through the country. Earlier coastal surveys – found on one occasion to have made an 11-mile error in the position of a headland – could be corrected, an important matter for safe navigation and maritime commerce. As Roderick Murchison noted in 1835, mapping was part of the 'progress of science, and its application to national uses in every portion of the United Kingdom'.

Keeping pace with the mapping of the world

Whilst the work of the Survey was considered in terms of its economic and political utility, a further motivation behind the claims to map Scotland fully was the fact that Britain had fallen behind other countries: as Murchison put it, 'In this untoward condition of a national geographical survey, Great Britain stands almost alone among the civilized nations of Europe'. Although this was not wholly true in fact, the perception that Britain was slipping behind in its national geographical surveys was strongly held. Ironically, Survey and other institutionally-supported mapping was elsewhere well advanced, notably in Britain's colonial territories. In India after 1817, the Great Trigonometrical Survey built upon the work of William Lambton's General Survey, and under George Everest's direction in particular, provided a detailed triangulation and cartographic 'inscription' for India (Edney, 1997). In tropical environments, however, such as British Guiana in South America, triangulation was not possible and traverse surveys, undertaken by following river valleys and the 'lie of the land', had to be employed (Burnett, 2000). In Sinai and Palestine, the work of the Survey between 1856 and 1877 was part of the geographical 'opening-up' of the Holy Land evident in the exploration of ancient sites under the direction of the Palestine Exploration Fund, and, centred on Jerusalem in particular, of a concern amongst scholars in Britain, France and Germany with 'scriptural geography' – what of the landscapes described in the Scriptures survived in the present day, and how best could they be understood and mapped? In charge of the Survey's work in Jerusalem in 1865 and in Sinai in 1869 was Charles Wilson (1836-1905) – whose words about the Ordnance Survey head this essay, and who became OS Director-General (1885-1894). Wilson was earlier employed, between 1858 and 1862, as a boundary commissioner in the Rockies, charting the boundary between Canada and the United States.

Maps and texts

In a proper sense, maps are statistical documents, that is, they record the contents of states as political territories. And as statistical documents, they work better in association with written texts. The combination of map and textual memoir was a commonplace of much 18th-century mapping, with the memoir affording insight into how the map was undertaken, the authorities drawn upon in compiling the work and the intentions sought by the map maker in producing the work. During the first quarter of the 19th century, however, the association of map-with-memoir became less common.

In the 1830s and 1840s, Ordnance Survey officials working in Ireland sought to re-establish the connection between map and book, and argued, unsuccessfully as it turned out, for a series of 'topographic memoirs' which would, via inventories and written descriptions, provide an accompaniment to the map – the contents to 'fill in' its outlines. In part, this scheme drew upon earlier traditions of topographical description. But it reflected also the contemporary commutation of the tithes in England and Wales, where the tithe maps being drawn up had associated registers in which statistics on land use and areal extent were recorded. In England, in association with its 1:2,500 maps, the Survey undertook plans to produce what it called 'Books of Reference', in which information on arable, pasture and other principal categories of land use was recorded before, where relevant, 'the state of cultivation' was transferred to the map. In his role as coordinator of the Edinburgh office of Ordnance Survey from 1850, and after he assumed the position of Director from 1854, Henry James tried hard to have the Survey's six-inch series used as a base on which agricultural statistics throughout Scotland could be recorded. His plan to use 'the simple machinery of parish schoolmasters' – men who might record the crops 'in taking his walk in the evening or in the morning' – echoed the use made of schoolmen in the 1791-1799 Statistical Account of Scotland and in the New Statistical Account of Scotland between 1832 and 1845. Yet it was never adopted, the Government preferring to record agricultural statistics through printed schedules. It is noteworthy, nevertheless, that in Ireland where the Survey's work was largely straightforward, no accompanying statistical memoirs were published [see note 5], whilst in Scotland, with its interrupted sequence of Survey mapping yet long and successful tradition of statistical accountancy, no such memoirs were forthcoming either, despite appeals for them from leading Survey officials.

Mapping and the natural and social sciences

The years of the Survey's work in Scotland also witnessed the birth and slow establishment of the social sciences and the institutionalisation and professionalisation of many 'modern' disciplines. In this context, the idea and practice of 'survey' was a powerful scientific method, the map an expression of visual thinking in science. In botany, survey helped establish the growth of what became 'plant geography' and, in time, ecology. In ethnology and linguistic studies in Scotland and elsewhere, survey was a common means of arriving at a national 'view', the results commonly being displayed in maps. In the sanitary sciences, mapping towns and cities was an important element in disease management: in Edinburgh, for example, Henry James was much involved with Board of Health officials about urban mapping and public health, a debate played out in most large towns in Victorian Britain. The work of the Ordnance Survey in giving shape to the land was paralleled by the coastal and marine mapping of the Hydrographical Survey, formally begun in 1795 but, like the Ordnance Survey, with earlier Scottish origins in Mackenzie's Orkney and Hebridean surveys. Where these bodies worked to give cartographic accuracy above ground, the Geological Survey worked to map the invisible world beneath ground as geology, shedding its scriptural associations, looked to establish its economic credentials for the good of the nation. The Geological Survey was established in 1835 – and formally separated from the Ordnance Survey in 1845 – but men like John Macculloch, who had earlier acted as geologist to the Trigonometrical Survey in Scotland, pioneered geological mapping using Scotland as both field and laboratory for his work from the 1820s. Later in the century indeed, the work of the Geological Survey particularly in the north and west Highlands advanced geological understanding because the surveyors based their field interpretations on the earlier six-inch Ordnance Survey maps. Mapping, then, was widely used in 19th-century science as a way of visual thinking and was regarded as of economic and political utility to the nation. The work of the Survey in Scotland, albeit 'uneven' in chronology, was a central element of this bigger picture.


We have here outlined something of what lies "behind" one set of important and historically-significant maps of Scotland, what lies behind the paper document with which most of us are familiar. Maps are more than scaled-down pictures, more than mirrors to the world. In relation to the Ordnance Survey's work in Scotland and the production of its six-inch map series in particular, what lies behind the making of that 'paper landscape' are complex social and political stories, matters of technology, different political interests, strongly-held views over the 'right' scale and about cartography as a branch of geographical science and, not least, the often untold lives of surveyors, sappers, officers and engravers through whose combined labours the maps of Ordnance Survey helped give shape and content to Victorian Scotland. As Wilson put it in 1891, maps always reflect and are the expression of 'practical acts of government'. But they did not do so simply.

Note 5:
The manuscript Ordnance Survey Memoirs of Ireland were only compiled for the northern counties during the 1830s. With one exception, they were not published at the time, and between 1839 and 1840 the Memoir scheme collapsed as Peel's government could not countenance the expenditure of money and time on such an exercise. The Memoirs for the northern counties were recently transcribed and published by Queen's University of Belfast, Institute of Irish Studies as the Ordnance Survey memoirs of Ireland series, 1990-1998.
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Andrews, J H (1975). A paper landscape: the Ordnance Survey in nineteenth-century Ireland. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Boud, R C (1986). The Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland and the Ordnance Survey of Scotland, 1837-75, Cartographic Journal 23, 3-26.

Burnett, D G (2000). Masters of all they surveyed: exploration, geography and a British El Dorado. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

Clarke, Alexander Ross (1858). Account of the Observations and Calculations of the Principal Triangulation etc, Drawn up by Captain Alexander Ross Clarke under the direction of Lt Col H James etc. Ordnance Survey: London, 1858.

Close, C (1926, reprinted 1969). The early years of the Ordnance Survey. Newton Abbot: David & Charles.

Collier, H (1972). A short history of Ordnance Survey contouring with particular reference to Scotland, Cartographic Journal 9, 55-58.

Delano-Smith, C, and Kain, R J P (1999). English maps – a history. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Edney, M H (1997). Mapping an empire: the geographical construction of British India, 1765-1843. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

James, H (1873). Account of the field surveying and the preparation of the manuscript plans of the Ordnance Survey. London: HMSO.

James, H (revised by Duncan A Johnston) (1902). Account of the methods and processes adopted for the production of the maps of the Ordnance Survey of the United Kingdom … 2nd edition. London: HMSO.

Johnston, A K (1851). Historical notice of the progress of the Ordnance Survey in Scotland. Edinburgh: n.p.

Harley, J B (1979). The Ordnance Survey and land-use mapping. Historical Geography Research Series of the Institute of British Geographers Number 2. Norwich: Geoabstracts.

Oliver, R (2005). Ordnance Survey maps: a concise guide for historians, 2nd ed. London: Charles Close Society.

Moir, D G (1983). The early maps of Scotland to 1850. 2 volumes. Edinburgh: Royal Scottish Geographical Society.

Owen, T and Pilbeam, E (1992). Ordnance Survey: map makers to Britain since 1791. Southampton: Ordnance Survey; London: HMSO. Available online on the Ordnance Survey's website - 'history' page.

Portlock, J E (1869). Memoir of the life of Major-General Colby. London: Seeley, Jackson, and Halliday .

Sankey, H R (reprinted 1995). The maps of the Ordnance Survey: a mid-Victorian view, (ed. by Ian Mumford). London: Charles Close.

Seymour, W A (ed.) (1980). A history of the Ordnance Survey. Folkestone, Kent: Dawson. Available online on the Ordnance Survey's website - 'history' page.

Walker, David L, 'The initial triangulation of Scotland from 1809 to 1822', Charles Close Society, Sheetlines No 98, December 2013. Available online.

Walker, David L, 'The troubled progress of the Scottish triangulation 1823-1858', Charles Close Society, Sheetlines No 104, December 2015. Available online.

Walker, David L, 'A fresh look at the initial triangulation 1795-1811', Charles Close Society, Sheetlines No 117, April 2020. Available online.

Walker, David L, 'The Ordnance Survey and Airy’s figure of the earth', Charles Close Society, Sheetlines No 119, December 2020. Available online.

Wilson, C (1891). Methods and processes of the Ordnance Survey, Scottish Geographical Magazine 7, 248-59.

Winterbotham, H St J L (1934). The national plans (the ten-foot, five-foot, twenty-five-inch and six-inch scales). OS Professional Papers, New series, 16. London: HMSO.

Withers, C W J (2000). Authorizing landscape: 'authority', naming and the Ordnance Survey's mapping of the Scottish Highlands in the nineteenth century, Journal of Historical Geography 26, 532-54.

Withers, C W J (2001). Geography, science and national identity: Scotland since 1520. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Further reading

In addition to the references listed above, the history of Ordnance Survey's work in 19th-century Scotland (as for England and Wales, Ireland, and overseas) may be examined by tracing the Survey's activities in the British Parliamentary Papers (the records of formal business conducted in the House of Commons). Readers interested in tracing a complete record of the Survey's history through the Parliamentary Papers – much of which material is drawn upon by Close and Seymour in their works (see above) – should begin by consulting the several'Indexes to the Parliamentary Papers' (from 1802 onwards) for the details of individual reports.

Here we identify, in chronological order, only the principal 'Reports', 'Memorials' and other accounts relating to the work of the Ordnance Survey in 19th-century Scotland, giving the details of the relevant Parliamentary Papers (by date and volume) with, in summary, an indication of their contents. This is not a full list of relevant Papers.

British Parliamentary Papers, 1836, XLVII. 'Memorial of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, in relation to the present state of Survey of Great Britain'. Six pages of reasons from the BAAS and its representatives concerning the importance of mapping and how science and national progress are being hindered by not completing the Survey's work in Scotland.

British Parliamentary Papers, 1837, XXXIX. 'Memorials from Public Bodies in Scotland, and Correspondence relating to the Trigonometrical Survey of Scotland'. Important for collecting together the views and representations of numerous bodies within Scotland concerning the disadvantages resulting from delays in the mapping of Scotland: 'Memorials' are from the Wernerian Natural History Society of Scotland; the Royal Society of Edinburgh; the Lord Provost, Magistrates, and Council of the City of Edinburgh; the Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland; the Philosophical Society of Glasgow; the Provost, Baillies, and Councillors of the Royal Burgh of Dumbarton; the Royal Scottish Society of Arts.

British Parliamentary Papers, 1843, XLIX. 'Year in which the Ordnance Survey was commenced; Number of Officers, &c. at present employed or to be employed during the current year; Instructions from the Board of Ordnance to the Officers conducting the Survey, in reference to the scale on which it is to be laid down, and the precise Description of Survey determined upon as regards the Delineation of Boundaries; Statement of exact State of Survey at this date; what portion has been executed, &c'. Has a two-page "Memoranda relating to the successive progress of the Survey in Scotland and the Scottish Islands" by Thomas Colby, dated 21 April 1843.

British Parliamentary Papers, 1844, XLII. 'Manner in which the Sum voted in the Ordnance Estimates for the Trigonometrical Survey of Scotland has been appropriated; the Amount expended; the Balance remaining in hand; and a Statement of the Progress in hand'. This is an early version of what became a common form of reporting on the work of the Survey, the costs incurred in the previous year and the likely expenditure in following years. Similar reports in later years are sometimes supplemented by remarks on the numbers of men employed, and projected to be employed.

British Parliamentary Papers, 1846, XXVI. 'Return of the year in which the Ordnance Survey in England was commenced; Sums which have been voted and expended in carrying out the Survey to April 1846; Number of Officers and other Parties employed since April 1838; Progress made in the Survey to this date; Particulars with regard to the Surveys of Scotland and Ireland; Memorials relative to Scotland, with Answers thereto; Instructions to Surveying Officers, &c., since 1838; Application of Sums voted by Parliament'. Like many such reports, this has evidence of the level of expenditure and the numbers of persons employed in the Ordnance Survey in Scotland (for each year between 1838 and 1846). It also reprints in full the memorials included in BPP, 1837, XXXIX (see above).

British Parliamentary Papers, 1847-1848, LX. 'Sums expended on the Ordnance Surveys of Scotland since 5 April 1847; Number of Officers, &c., employed on the said Survey; the Number proposed to be employed during the current year, and Localities in which operations have been and are to be respectively carried on; also, exact state of and progress made in the Survey; similar particulars with regard to the Surveys of England and Ireland since 31 March 1846; and Sums voted for and expended on the Surveys of the Empire during the years 1846 and 1847'. 'Typical' summary account of the expenditure and staffing but this is additionally interesting in providing a comparative perspective on the Survey's work in Scotland with its overseas surveying in this period.

British Parliamentary Papers, 1852, LIII. 'Correspondence between the Treasury and the Board of Ordnance in reference to the Recommendations contained in the report of the Select Committee of the House of Commons, of Session 1851, on Ordnance Survey (Scotland)'. Interesting for the reactions to the view of the 1851 Committee (under Lord Elcho) which proposed abandonment of the six-inch mapping work and a return to one-inch scale surveying.

British Parliamentary Papers, 1856, XIV. 'Report from the Select Committee appointed to consider the Ordnance Survey of Scotland; with the Proceedings, Minutes of Evidence, Appendix, and Index'. This is, at 151 pages, perhaps the longest and most detailed set of evidence over the 'Battle of the Scales'. Evidence is taken from Sir Charles Trevelyan, Lt-Col R K Dawson, Lt-Col Henry James, Sir Roderick Murchison, Sir John Burgoyne, The Lord Advocate, Mr Thomas Sopwith, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Charles Vignoles, and Robert Stephenson and their testimony is reproduced in extenso.

British Parliamentary Papers, 1857, XXVII. 'A Return with regard to the Ordnance Survey in each County of Scotland, showing, - 1. The Scale or Scales of such Surveys, and where different scalkes have been adopted, the Dates when such Scales were severally commenced. 2. The present State of Such Surveys, and the Estimated Time for their completion upon each different Scale adopted. 3. The Expense incurred in each Survey, from the Commencement to April 1854, and subsequently in the several Years ending April 1855, 1856, and 1857. 4. The Estimated Cost of Completion. 5. Where no Survey has yet been commenced, the Scale or Scales on which it is intended to make the Survey, with the Estimated Cost and Time of Completion'. This report, prepared by Henry James, is one of the most interesting for Scotland. Whilst Scotland as a whole is recorded as being surveyed and mapped on a south-to-north pattern, listed individual counties are shown being surveyed and mapped at different scales, at different times and not always on a south-to-north pattern.

British Parliamentary Papers, 1863, XXXIII. 'Return showing the names of the several draftsmen, computers, and others engaged in the service in the survey of England, Scotland, and Ireland, their rates of pay, length of service, &c'. Interesting for an economic perspective on the lives and salaries of individual Survey staff, but unless you know who was working in which part of Great Britain (possible from assessment of the Original Object Names Books where they survive), it is not easy to place the listed men in geographical context.